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Questors, Jesters and Renegades: The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

Questors, Jesters and Renegades: The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

Top theatre critic, biographer and journalist, Michael Coveney, makes a strong case for the amateur theatre sector with his brand-new book: Questors, Jesters and Renegades: The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre.

When I started out as a theatre critic in the early 1970s, I was often despatched to student and amateur performances. In those far off days before the sprouting of fringe and studio venues all over the country, there was space, time and leisure on the broadsheets to report on such events as the New Plays festival at the Questors in Ealing, European classics and musicals at the Tower in Canonbury, the annual Greek play (performed in Greek) at Bradfield College, the major university productions at the OUDS in Oxford and the Marlowe Society in Cambridge, the Mystery Plays in York (where a sixteen-year-old Judi Dench once played the Virgin Mary) as well as the National Youth Theatre and final year shows at the Guildhall School or RADA.

The NYT and the drama schools still figure occasionally on the critic’s beat, and are catnip, of course, in Sardines. But what with fringe, stand-up comedy, immersive or underwater productions, one-man shows, magic shows, alternative circus and the shift in mainstream emphasis towards Shakespeare’s Globe (and the gorgeous Sam Wanamaker), the Bridge run by the NHS (i.e. Nicks Hytner and Starr), the “establishment” fringe (Almeida, Hampstead, Menier, Kiln, etc.) – not to mention the West End itself, the regional theatre and the endless production line at the National, the Royal Court and the RSC – the amateur theatre has been starved of critical consideration for decades.

Opening night at the Minack, Porthcurno, 16 August 1932.

Ironically, as these pages testify in every edition, the activity of amateurs is unabated, even though many memberships in The Little Theatre Guild are down on ten or fifteen years ago. The hard core – hundreds of companies all over Britain! — is lively and resilient. And of course the amateur theatre has been moving steadily centre stage at both the RSC and the National for several years now, culminating in the RSC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2016 with amateurs playing the mechanicals, and the National’s Pericles with two hundred amateurs in community projects taking the Olivier stage in 2018.

“Many people I know would rather die than go anywhere near a production by amateurs. But then many quite reasonable, if deluded, people would rather eat their own feet than be caught dead in any theatre anywhere, anyway. And there is an element of white middle-class engagement with amateur theatre that you might find as off-putting as others find cosily attractive, a view of amdram once expressed by Kenneth Tynan as ‘an exhibitionist’s
alternative to bridge’.”
The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

I wanted to find out more about all of this, and my purpose was sharpened by two things: a chance encounter a few years ago with a superb Tower Theatre revival of Lee Hall’s fantastically scabrous Cooking with Elvis in the unassuming setting of Theatro Technis in Camden Town (the Tower, newly re-housed in a fine Gothic octagonal building in Stoke Newington, was peripatetic for fifteen years); and the news coming through to me of the sad decline in amateur theatre in my home town of Ilford, Essex, due to seismic demographic changes while, in the natural seedbed of amdram, perhaps, the middle-class Home Counties, amdram continues to thrive. Bromley in Kent has no less than sixteen known amdram societies or clubs.

In some ways, I have written the book I wanted to read, charting the story of amateur theatre from the medieval guilds through the Elizabethan and Restoration eras to the country house theatre of the 18th Century, the amateur theatrics of arguably our two greatest novelists, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, to the modern era. The British Drama League was formed at the end of the First World War to help rejuvenate the nation’s theatre, pick up where Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville Barker and other pioneers had led the way.

The new Tower Theatre in a former chapel, synagogue and ladies’ gymnasium, in Stoke Newington, north London

And central to this impetus was the campaign to form a National Theatre. Between the wars, the amateur theatre around the country lined up with the club theatres in London as crucibles of new writing and an innovative European repertoire. The watchword was a sort of high-minded, literate seriousness, often with an overtly socialist purpose – the People’s in Newcastle, for instance, which had been founded by the captain of the Newcastle United soccer team in 1911, was an avowed branch of the British Socialist Party.

“The Play That Goes Wrong is an anthology of what we now call Coarse Theatre, as famously propounded in Michael Green’s perennial best-seller The Art of Coarse Acting (1964), revised and rewritten on its thirtieth and fiftieth anniversaries. And here’s the thing: Green was – he died, aged ninety-one, in February 2018 – a long-standing member of one of the country’s leading amateur companies, the Questors in Ealing. And Henry Lewis, one of the Goes Wrong trio, was a member of Young Questors before going on to drama school.”
The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

Between the wars, the amateur theatre was supported nationwide by the likes of H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, Sybil Thorndike and J.B. Priestley as a bulwark of seriousness in a sea of West End fluff. Firebrand Sybil, Shaw’s first Saint Joan in 1922, went so far as to say in a speech she delivered in Birmingham in 1930 that the British theatre needed “to pull up its socks” and that the biggest sign of revival was in “the steady growth, all over the country, of amateur dramatic societies.”

This is where the Tower and the Questors, the two theatres I’d kept my eye on, come into the story, both formed within a year of each other in 1931/2, one as part of a high-minded educational settlement, the other led by an authentic visionary, Alfred Emmet, who inaugurated that New Plays Festival, along with much else, that I caught up with. Every leading professional – Olivier, Gielgud, Peggy Ashcroft, Tyrone Guthrie and Peter Hall – admired what Emmet was doing at Questors. And in 1964 he moved the company from its Tin Hut to the first purpose-built thrust stage, its home still today, in the country.

In that same year I had seen a play in the West End that made a deep impression on me, James Saunders’ A Scent of Flowers at the Duke of York’s, in which Ian McKellen was making his West End debut on the same stage to which he would come full circle as King Lear in 2018. And one of the first plays I reviewed at Questors was by the same James Saunders. Even then, and not for the first time, I saw a distinct overlap between the professional and amateur theatres.

“‘It was more than song and dance,’ says Jude Law,
‘I learned almost everything I know about acting, and ensemble work, at the National Youth Music Theatre under Jeremy James-Taylor. And when I was asked recently to write about the Bob Hope [in Eltham, London] in my time there, I was literally overcome with emotion at the memory of it all.
It all meant a great deal to me, and the level of
professionalism in that experience of amateur theatre was as high as anything I’ve subsequently known.’”
The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

And so there still is. Not only in terms of personnel and repertoire, but in so many practical ways, too, such as costuming, health and safety regulations, systems of committees and hierarchies and general sense of purpose and ambition. The actor Jim Broadbent, whose father co-founded the theatre that bears his surname in Wickenby, Lincolnshire, home of the Lindsey Rural Players, suggested that the decisive difference between amateur and professional was the director (I would add to that the discipline and concentration of the rehearsal room).

That is not to say there are no good directors anywhere in amateur theatre. But in the early days, a figure like Nugent Monck, who founded the Maddermarket Theatre in Norwich, was in the vanguard of Shakespearean production. Peter Brook and Tyrone Guthrie both admired Monck for the speed and clarity of his productions on that tiny little stage in the medieval heart of Norwich.
His influence was all pervasive, and fed through to our modern day theatre through the work of Brook and his early mentor, Barry Jackson, who had founded the Birmingham Rep in 1913 and subsequently given early, career-defining opportunities not only to Brook himself but also to Laurence Olivier, Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson, Paul Scofield, Albert Finney, Derek Jacobi and many other stalwarts in the burgeoning rep and classical tradition.

“Even at the National you sit tight whenever an onstage telephone rings, hoping against hope that it will stop ringing when the actor plucks it from its cradle; even better, of course, if he plucks it just after it has stopped ringing. It takes a real pro to extract him or herself from a phone disaster, as did Sybil Thorndike when she stepped confidently downstage to answer a rogue phone that should not have rung at that point, picked
it up, and turned upstage with an arm
outstretched towards Gladys Cooper saying,
‘It’s for you, dear.’”
The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

Together with some friends, Jackson had formed an amateur company, the Pilgrim Players, which at first performed plays in his family home and went public in 1907, soon settling in the Assembly Rooms in Edgbaston. And this enterprise formed the basis of the Birmingham Rep, the first purpose-built repertory theatre in the world. You cannot therefore dispute the assertion by Ian McKellen that the amateur theatre in this country is the bedrock of the professional stage. It also goes some way to explaining why the amateur theatre is an important component in the DNA of the nation.
The challenge, of course, is how it might adapt and develop in a changing world, not least at a time of renewed clamour for more diversity, social responsibility and outreach in the arts. Almost every amateur theatre I have visited over the past couple of years tells me that one of the major problems is attracting more young people to work backstage and build sets. The Archway Theatre in Horley, Surrey – an amazing warren of workshops, performance spaces, social facilities, all embedded in a series of railway arches – has an ageing technical workforce known as “the scenery citizens”; the band of volunteer lady cleaners at the Geoffrey Whitworth in Crayford, Kent, are jovially known in-house as “the scrubbers”.

“While it is true that we now look at the rehearsals and performance of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ by the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a love letter to amdram, the scholar Michael Dobson points out that Shakespeare almost certainly didn’t. At the time of the play’s composition, 1595, the days of guilds mumming the Mystery plays had long vanished. But at the Restoration of the monarchy, amateur theatricals revived and a script published in 1661 as fuel for the theatrical energy of young tradesmen forbidden to marry before completing their training was titled The Merry Conceited Humours of Bottom the Weaver, a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as if edited by Nick Bottom. As Dobson concludes, ‘Amateur theatricals as we know them – especially amateur theatricals involving Shakespeare – start here.’”
The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

Ideally, of course, most amateur theatres encourage new young acting recruits to get involved, as far as they can, with backstage and front-of-house duties. Andrew Lowrie, chairman of the Crescent in Birmingham, puts it even more starkly: he insists to his budding young actors that if they want the theatre to survive, they must regard their own participation as completely cooperative, working on props as well as in the bar. It used to be much more the other way round: new actors in my hometown theatre in Ilford, Essex, the Renegades, used to call by the workshops on a Saturday morning to help out with set building and painting as a way of being invited into the rehearsal room.

The Renegades is no more, and the theatre that has housed the Ilford amateurs since 1973, the Kenneth More Theatre, is under serious threat. The resident company that programmed the theatre, as well as putting on semi-professional shows, has been disbanded, and the future looks bleak. I wanted, in the book, to celebrate something of what the Renegades and others like them brought to the cultural welfare of their community in the years after the war.

The traditional progression nowadays to drama school or repertory theatre companies is uncertain. The drama schools seem to be on the point of upheaval in their recruitment priorities, and the reps don’t, on the whole, have companies for young actors to join and learn their trade. This has given a new impetus to many members of the Little Theatre Guild who run well-attended training and youth groups on a commercial basis, an important factor in balancing the books, together with box office, thus filling the income gap left by a declining subscription membership.

“Although he was generally known, and without any hint of wry deprecation, as Ilford’s Mr Theatre, James Cooper’s struggle to achieve his goal – run his own company, the Renegades, in a theatre he controlled – was as titanic, and as much a test of his endurance, as the higher-profile campaigns of Joan Littlewood at Stratford East or Peter Hall at the National Theatre. It was uphill all the way, and not made any easier by the fact that his default mode with authority figures, and especially town councillors, was abrasive to put it mildly.”
The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

Actors have always worked for next to nothing. But, as Erica Whyman, deputy artistic director of the RSC, says, the dividing line between amateur and professional didn’t really exist until the creation of the Arts Council in 1946. It may be time to re-draw those boundaries, and the sort of work the RSC now does with amateurs – not just full-blown productions, but the weekend workshops, the work in schools – as much as the Public Acts initiative at the National, and an overall drift towards recharging and celebrating the community, is a sure sign of some shifting of theatrical tectonic plates.

“Brenda Blethyn recounted how she worked as a secretary for ten years before finding her feet with the Euston Players, British Rail’s amdram group. She even remembers the first line she ever uttered on stage: “It’s a real dirty old night. Evans the post says the mist is right down to the path, quite thick it was.” The more she did, the more she loved doing it, being part of the whole operation of “putting on a show”….. Mind you, I did once ask Toby Jones if he had ever worked in amateur theatre. “Why, does it look as though I have?” was his half-serious, self-deprecating riposte.”
The Story of Britain’s Amateur Theatre

Michael Coveney was staff critic, successively, on The Financial Times, The Observer and The Daily Mail. He was editor of Plays and Players and, more recently, chief critic on
His books include a history of the Glasgow Citizens, a polemical diary (The Aisle is Full of Noises), and critical biographies of Mike Leigh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ken Campbell and Maggie Smith.

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